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Give him a puck and a stick, and Nikita Kucherov is an artiste in motion

John Romano | The Lightning forward had a pair of how-did-he-do-that assists in the 4-2 win against the Islanders on Tuesday.
Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov, left, and center Brayden Point celebrate the goal by Point during the first period of Game 2 against the Islanders.
Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov, left, and center Brayden Point celebrate the goal by Point during the first period of Game 2 against the Islanders. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jun. 16
Updated Jun. 16

Years from now, the record books and stat sheets will undoubtedly confirm Nikita Kucherov’s status as an elite player.

Still a day shy of his 28th birthday, the Lightning forward already has a handful of All-Star appearances, a Hart Trophy, a Ross Trophy and his name forever inscribed on Lord Stanley’s Cup.

But the best legacies are borne of memories and not just numbers, and Kucherov had a game Tuesday night that deserves to be talked about for as long as there are barstools and beer in Tampa Bay.

Kucherov didn’t score a goal, didn’t throw a meaningful punch, didn’t block a shot in the Lightning’s 4-2 victory over the Islanders in Game 2. All he did was rescue Tampa Bay on a night when the season briefly felt as if it might have been in peril.

It was Kucherov who set up the Lightning’s first goal of the night with a no-look, back-handed pass to Brayden Point in the first period, then set up the go-ahead goal in the second period with a remarkable pass to a streaking Ondrej Palat while being double-teamed.

“Some unreal plays by No. 86,” said Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman.

These are not set plays. They are not anything that can be taught. They are the work of an artisan with few peers.

These are the kind of plays that will one day define the type of player Kucherov has been. He’s a goal scorer, of course. He averaged 35 goals a season from 2014 to 2020 before missing this past regular season after hip surgery.

But more than that, Kucherov is a playmaker. He makes everyone around him look better. He’s had assists on 20 of Point’s 32 career playoff goals, which is the second-highest percentage in league history, according to the NHL public relations office.

It’s creativity and instinct, but it’s also dedication and acumen.

“He’s remarkably gifted,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “How do I describe it? He does everything with grace. He’s just so smooth in the plays he makes and what his vision is.

“It just looks effortless. I know it’s not. He works at this, he works at doing what he does extremely well. But he sure can make plays out of what looks like nothing. It’s fun to watch.”

The first assist came from behind the net when David Savard sent a pass to Kucherov and — while he was facing the fans in the first row — Kucherov immediately backhanded the puck to Point, who was standing just to the left of the goaltender.

“It’s just having a feel for each other. Reading each other before the puck gets behind the net,” Kucherov said. “Everybody is trying to get open and I’m thinking what (Point) is trying to think.”

Nikita Kucherov (86) and center Brayden Point (21) try to get the puck past Islanders goaltender Semyon Varlamov during the first period.
Nikita Kucherov (86) and center Brayden Point (21) try to get the puck past Islanders goaltender Semyon Varlamov during the first period. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The second assist was even more impressive because of the thought that went into it. Kucherov got a pass from Hedman and was racing up the left side of the ice with a half-step on defenseman Nick Leddy when he decided not to take a low percentage shot. Instead, Kucherov spun and retreated a few steps to draw the attention of Mathew Barzal before reversing course again, and hitting Palat in stride in the center of the ice.

“There was no room for a breakaway there so I tried to pull up, find a second wave,” Kucherov explained. “(Point) did a good job of driving and taking the second D down, and (Palat) got open and I tried to find him. He did a hell of a job shooting that.”

As if confirmation is needed, Kucherov is now leading the NHL in points in the postseason. And it’s not really close. He’s got 22 points in 13 games, which is seven more than anyone else. It’s also one of the reasons Point now leads the league with 10 goals in the playoffs.

The numbers are impressive and, years from now, they might even play a role in his possible Hall of Fame candidacy. But Lightning fans won’t be talking about his total assists or his points-per-game. When Kucherov’s name is mentioned, they will talk about the grace, the wizardry, the absolute beauty of his game when he was in his prime.

“He’s an elite, elite player, one of the best in the league,” Hedman said. “He’s so good at finding open ice and so calm with the puck making plays. When Pally scored, that was a good example. There are not a whole lot of players who can turn up, turn back down and then thread the needle and give Pally almost a breakaway from the hash marks. Kuch has elite skill and he works on it every day so it’s not coincidence.”

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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